*With Oscar voting in full swing and the ceremony less than two weeks away, I'm taking this week to spotlight a handful of nominees in the technical categories. These are not frontrunners in their category, but they are worthy of our consideration. Welcome to FYC Week.*
Starting last year, the Academy changed the name of this category from "Art Direction" - which it had been known as for 84 years - to "Production Design." The name change is appropriate: this is work that involves the designing of sets, both natural and built, to suit the needs of the film. This year's crop of nominees range from plantations in the antebellum American South (12 Years a Slave) to the glitzy parties of the 1920s (The Great Gatsby) to the New Jersey of the 1970s (American Hustle), even all the way to outer space (Gravity). Though the lattermost is somewhat suspect - in a film so heavily reliant on digital effects, how do you distinguish the tangible from the digital (I'm sure there's a way that I'm not privy to) - all of these films feature impressive designs from the past or, in Gravity's case, plausible present.
But Her, with production design by K.K. Barrett and set decoration by Gene Serdena, is different in that it's set in the near-future. Futuristic films have earned nominations in this category before; in fact, recent years have often featured at least one nomination for a science-fiction or fantasy film. But the future created by Barrett and Serdena isn't all that different from our present. Like the film's costume work, the sets create a plausible vision of the future by looking to the past, taking cues from the "everything comes back around" trends of today. Theodore's (Joaquin Phoenix) apartment may have hologram projections instead of a TV for playing video games on, but the furnishings and decor - particularly the wood-panelling - draw cues from '60s art-deco with a modern (post-modern?) twist. Similarly, the bar where he meets his blind date (Olivia Wilde) applies retro-futurism - everything from the tables to the building itself has a curved, sleek design, with the ribbed walls recalling a Giger bar as renovated by Barbarella.
It would have been really easy for the film to go full-on future, with outré designs that called attention to the fact that this film occurs in a time beyond the present. But Barrett and Serdena understand that to do so would rob the film of its power. This is a film where a man falls in love with an operating system, an intangible yet ever-present entity; the brilliant performances of Phoenix and Scarlett Johansson as "Samantha" are the cornerstone to the success of this premise. But the production design is a key factor in that same success, because it places them in a world that's only slightly different than ours. Suddenly, something that seems ridiculous becomes all the more realistic, which in turn makes it all the more achingly human. The production design of Her doesn't stand out in the film as much as it does in the other nominated films. But it's contribution to the film is not to be overlooked.